Row, Row, Row the Boat

    Richmond’s First Private Club

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    The oldest private club in Richmond was founded in 1876 by seven men with one six-person boat. With the addition of a coxswain in the stern, the Virginia Boat Club fit in that boat for rowing exercises on the James River.

    Over the next ten years, the rowing club merged with two other clubs and expanded so much that they needed a proper clubhouse in which to gather. In 1888, they built one on Mayo Island, which back then, was still forested and secluded from the city. The clubhouse became a social hub for prominent Richmonders, who frequented its ballroom, ball courts, swimming pool, and gym.

    Despite its popularity, however, the Virginia Boat Club was dogged by disaster. Encroaching development threatened its tranquil setting. Then, in 1930, a fire burned the clubhouse to the ground. Floods were so frequent that members began marking their heights on the walls. Finally, the winds of social changes blew them out of the water. By the 1950s, rowing simply was not popular and the last crew team based there dissolved. Efforts were made to re-envision its mission more generally, but disasters continued to befall the club. Urban flight saw membership dwindle. In August of 1969, damage from Hurricane Camille required a complete restoration, but the property flooded again three years later during Hurricane Agnes. The club never recovered.

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    Photo:  Cook Collection, The Valentine